Kickboxing: Hell hath no fury

By Steve Deane

Kick-boxers (L-R) Miriam Tio, Michelle Preston and Wendy Talbot who are all fighting in top international kickboxing fights overseas. Photo / Dean Purcell
Kick-boxers (L-R) Miriam Tio, Michelle Preston and Wendy Talbot who are all fighting in top international kickboxing fights overseas. Photo / Dean Purcell

"If you bleed or vomit please clean up your own mess," reads the sign on the wall at the City Kickboxing gym in Newton. It's not a joke.

"I've come close to vomiting a few times," says New Zealand lightweight champion Wendy Talbot. "Blood noses happen all the time. It's a good sign to have."

Having almost completed her preparations for her first tilt at the big time, the Rotorua 23-year-old is aiming to do her cleaning up in the ring in Bangkok early next month, when she will be one of 16 contestants from around the globe competing for a US$50,000 ($60,560) prize in a reality TV-styled World Muay Thai Angels tournament. Having never fought outside New Zealand she is, she admits, freaking out a little.

The same can't be said of three-time world champion Michelle Preston. The 50-fight veteran is about to depart for the World Combat Games in St Petersburg, Russia, and she fancies her chances of winning the eight-fighter tournament.

Miriam Tio, a 32-year-old arborist from West Auckland, has just returned from Thai tourist mecca Koh Samui, where she fought in another reality TV tournament. She's sporting a black eye, but can't talk about how the tournament went as it hasn't screened yet.

"It was reality TV but it was an unreal experience," says Tio.

Girls fighting, it seems, are all the rage.

"You never see a more vicious fight than women fighting - they go harder than the boys," says Mike Angove, a former world cruiserweight champion who now trains Talbot.

"Believe me, they train as hard as the men, if not harder. Get rid of the dash of lipstick and the touch of foundation and you have got a pure fighter there. Maybe they just wear pink."

Talbot certainly does. Eye-catching pink-themed attire is her calling card.

Her moniker is the Prima Donna Girl, but there's nothing precious about her back story. A victim of teenage bullying, she drank too much, and graduated from smoking weed and taking Ecstasy to forming a dangerous relationship with P.

The disciplines learned in the gym saved her from all that. It's the classic fighter's tale, although one usually reserved for the barrio boys and gangsters who drag themselves off the mean streets of the Americas. Women finding salvation in the ring is a new twist.

"[P] took out eight months of my life," Talbot says. "If I didn't have [fighting] to get me back on track I'd still be on it now and I'd be in a very, very bad place. It ruined my relationship. It ruined the person I was with. He is still on it now. He has gone. He's out of the world right now. It's not cool. Not cool at all."

Tio's story is just as raw. About seven years ago she was with a partner who gave her "a couple of whacks". It changed her life, ultimately for the better.

"I was annoyed at being a woman who was weak," she says. "You want to be able to reciprocate. You don't want to be a victim. I see it as a positive thing. It made me change my life for the better and look after myself. I can defend myself but I also treat my body and my mind better."

Females participating in fight sports is nothing new.

Christy "the coal miner's daughter" Martin took women's professional boxing mainstream in the 1990s by knocking out 31 of her 57 opponents. In 2003 Martin was KO'd by Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, who showed the apple hadn't fallen far from that tree by winning all 24 of her pro fights.

Kickboxing has a strong history of embracing female fighters - particularly in Asia - but there is a surge in popularity with women across all fight sports.

"Overall there is a lot more women in the sport," says Preston, who began her stellar career 20 years ago. "It is getting a lot more popular."

An executive in a healthcare recruitment company, Preston doesn't look much like a three-time world champion who has travelled far and wide in search of people to pit her skills against.

"Everyone says that," she says. "When I am in the ring I don't look like I do day-to-day. My whole demeanour changes. I completely change personalities."

Born and raised in Manchester, England, she married a Kiwi guy and emigrated here in 2004. The youngest of four sisters, she became interested in fighting as a teenager. A lack of females in the sport meant her first four opponents were boys.

These days she scours the planet looking for women to take on. She spends a lot of time on the computer, calling out other fighters via email.

"Sometimes it's like 'cheeky bitch', but most of the time they are willing," she says.

The 20 years in the ring have taken their toll. Preston has had a knee reconstruction, suffered countless black eyes, broken her nose twice and broken both hands, the last of which came from punching a male sparring partner in the head.

It's a painful business, but fighting is what she lives for.

"I don't think most people get excited about the thought of being punched or punching somebody else. I do. When I get in the ring. It's like 'yeah, it's playtime'. It's my second home."

While many of the women at fight gyms are in it for the fitness and self-defence skills, stepping into the ring for real is a whole new deal.

"It was the scariest experience of my life," says Tio. "I was just so scared I was going to the toilet constantly. In the end they put the gloves on me so I couldn't go any more. It was just nerves. But that buzz that you get from getting in the ring is incredible. It's hard to explain to anyone who doesn't do an extreme sport."

Talbot's mother cried when she told her she was going to fight for real, but so far it has proved a great move.

She's still a novice, but Angove raves about her potential. She has the physique, is developing the skills and, most importantly, has the right attitude.

"I've got balls," she says. "I'll be a little bitch in the gym. I'll cry and throw my toys out of my cot, but as soon as I am in that ring it is on like Donkey Kong."

Out of the ring, she's a different person from the troubled teen who was going off the rails in Rotorua.

"It's made me not care what people think. It's made me humbler. It got me away from drugs and alcohol. The quote goes 'fighting saved my life' and that works in a lot of different ways for a lot of different people."

If she wins in Bangkok on October 3 Talbot will return to Thailand for a second fight in November. If she wins that, the final is on Christmas Day. The travel and time off work required mean she has had to quit her job as a swimming instructor. She's hoping to pick up enough sponsorship so she can base herself in Thailand for the full three months. Training with the best, at the spiritual home of the sport, could help take her to a new level.

Her friends are envious.

"Everyone's like 'you are going to be having a mean holiday'. I'm like, 'Nah, I'm going to be sweating and vomiting and just going hard."'

- NZ Herald

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